Category: Building A Culture of Genius

The Integration Mirage

If the Century Foundation and other advocates for socioeconomic integration are believed, Cambridge Public School in Massachusetts is supposedly the model for harmonious, high-quality educating of all children regardless of…

If the Century Foundation and other advocates for socioeconomic integration are believed, Cambridge Public School in Massachusetts is supposedly the model for harmonious, high-quality educating of all children regardless of background. This is because “73 percent of schools were balanced by race in the 2011–2012 school year” and 64 percent of them were “balanced” by socioeconomic status (including percentage of kids on free- and reduced-priced lunch plans). Declares Century in its lullaby to the school: “Cambridge remains a leader in school integration”.

Yet a Dropout Nation analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education offers a much different story than what Century and others want to promote. If anything, the rationing of opportunity for high-quality education is as much a problem in Cambridge and other districts considered successes of integration as they are in the nation’s most-highly segregated traditional districts.

Just 8.5 percent of Cambridge’s 577 Black high school students — 49 of them, to be exact — took Advanced Placement courses in 2013-2014. This is four times lower than the 34. 5 percent of White peers (226) taking the college preparatory coursework. [Sixteen-point-four percent of Latino high schoolers took AP that year.]

It gets only slightly better when it comes to access to calculus, trigonometry and other forms of advanced mathematics. Twenty eight-point-four percent of Black high schoolers took college-preparatory math in 2013-2014. But that still trailed the 48.4 percent of White peers who took those course. [Some 35.2 percent of Latino high school students took calculus and advanced math.]

The numbers got slightly better when it came to physics, a critical gateway course for science, technology, engineering and math careers. Thirty three-point-four percent of Black high schoolers took the course compared to 35.9 percent of White peers. But only 28.7 percent of Latino high schoolers took the course.

Meanwhile there is another form of denying opportunity that is pernicious within Cambridge — in the form of who gets put into its special ed ghettos. One out of every four Black children in Cambridge’s district — 25.9 percent of Black children in its care — are labeled special ed cases, as are 25.4 percent of Latino peers. This is almost double the (also far too high) 14.2 percent of White children placed into special ed. Based on those numbers, a Black or Latino child in Cambridge has a one-in-four chance of being denied the high-quality teaching and curricula they need for lifelong success.

Districts such as Stamford Public Schools are touted as examples of success in integration. But the data proves that illusory.

Even worse, the Black kids condemned to special ed are more-likely to be subjected to out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh traditional school discipline that ensure that they have a one-in-six chance of graduating from high school. Cambridge meted one or more out-of-school suspensions to 9.7 percent of Black children and 8.9 percent of Latino peers in Cambridge’s special ed ghettos; this is three times higher than the 3.5 percent out-of-school suspension rate for White peers.

For all of Century’s talk about Cambridge representing the success of socioeconomic integration, the data on equality of opportunity doesn’t support it. But this should be no surprise — especially to otherwise-sensible outfits such as the Center for American Progress (which released its own call for integration this week). Because integration has never proven to be the solution for the nation’s education crisis and its damage to the futures of poor and minority children that its proponents claim it to be.

Take the Jefferson County district in Louisville, Ky., another district that has been touted by Century and others for efforts on integration. Back in October, the foundation bemoaned an effort by the state legislature to end its “controlled choice” effort and allow families to send their kids to neighborhood schools. Just 11 percent of the district’s Black high schoolers and 18 percent of Latino peers accessed AP courses in 2013-2104, versus 28.5 percent of White high school students. Only 12 percent of Black high school students and 14.2 percent of Latino peers took calculus and advanced mathematics; this is lower than the 21.5 percent of White peers who accessed those courses.

Meanwhile the denial of high-quality education in the form of sending kids to special ed ghettos remains a problem. Fourteen-point. six percent of Black children are put into special ed, slightly higher than the 12.3 percent of White peers. [Only 6.4 percent of Latino children are condemned to special ed.] Yet Black children in special ed will suffer even worse than White peers when it comes to out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh school discipline. Jefferson County meted one or more out-of-school suspensions to 17.7 of Black children, compared to just 7.1 percent of White peers (and 10.2 percent of Latino students). Even when Black and White children are equally condemned to educational failure, they are not harmed in equal ways.

Another ‘model’ for integration is the Stamford district in Connecticut, which has been credited by Century for “remarkable success maintaining racially and socioeconomically desegregated schools”. Yet only 14 percent of Black high school students and 17 percent of their Latino peers took AP courses in 2013-2014, compared to 40.5 percent of White peers. Just 15.1 percent of Black high schoolers and 14.3 percent of Latino counterparts took calculus and other advanced math, two times lower than the 32.2 percent participation rate for White peers.

Meanwhile 19.1 percent of Black children and 12.6 percent of Latino peers were condemned to Stamford’s special ed ghettos. Only 9.2 percent of White children were denied high-quality education. Within those ghettos, Stamford meted one or more out-of-school suspensions to 13.3 percent of Black students and 6.6 percent of Latino peers. Just 3.3 percent of White students — 16 in all — were suspended one or more times that year.

Your editor can go on and on with each of the nine examples Century touts as models of success in socioeconomic integration — as well as point out other examples such as Clinton Separate School District in Mississippi. But that would be piling on. What the data points out is that for all the claims advocates make, socioeconomic integration doesn’t address the underlying issues that keep poor and minority children from receiving the high-quality teaching, curricula, and cultures they need for lifelong success.

Socioeconomic integration doesn’t deal with the reality that mixing Black and Latino faces into White spaces doesn’t address the myriad ways traditional districts deny opportunities to them. This includes the gatekeeping by school leaders, teachers and guidance counselors of gifted-and-talented programs that are the first steps towards kids attending AP and other college-preparatory courses, the low-quality instruction and curricula in regular classrooms that keep Black and Brown kids off the paths to success, and even selective high schools such as those of New York City, which Contributing Editor Michael Holzman has shown to be forms of “segregation by another name”.

Oddly enough, the magnet schools and other “controlled choice” models integration-as-school reform advocates often tout are among the worst offenders. One reason? Because they are as much used by districts as tools for luring and keeping White families at the expense of poor and minority children as they are mandated by courts for integration. [By the way: The power to use choice and high-quality education as a political tool is one reason why traditional districts oppose the expansion of charter schools in the first place.] Basically, magnets and controlled choice deny our most-vulnerable children access to high-quality education in the name of socioeconomic balance. Even worse, the approaches are no different in practice than the kinds of “curated segregation” that take place in many cities today.

There is a reason why charters have become the choice of so many Black families: Because of the opportunities for children to have their cultures and lives affirmed.

Integration also doesn’t address the failure to provide poor and minority children with teachers who are subject-matter competent and also care for them regardless of their background. As Dropout Nation noted last month, far too many Black and Brown children are taught by teachers who subject them to the not-so-soft-bigotry of low expectations, harming their chances for high school graduation and college completion. Nor does integration address the need to overhaul how we recruit, train, and compensate teachers, deal with the need to bring more talented Black people (including midcareer professionals ready to work with kids) into classrooms, or even the near-lifetime employment rules (in the form of tenure) and teacher dismissal policies that keep so many low-quality teachers in classrooms often filled with the descendants of enslaved Africans.

Addressing those underlying issues requires undertaking the kinds of teacher quality overhauls reformers have been pushing for the past two decades, ones that integration-as-school reform advocates often oppose. Put bluntly, it is difficult for your editor to take integration advocates seriously when they refuse to deal honestly with the consequences of policies and practices that allow educationally-abusive teaching to fester.

Meanwhile integration fails to address the restrictions on opportunity for poor and minority children that result from the traditional district model as well as the zoning policies and property tax-based finance systems on which it is sustained. Integration does absolutely nothing to address how districts use their dependence on property tax dollars to oppose the ability of poor and minority families in other communities (who finance those schools through state and federal dollars). Nor does it stop districts from using school zones and magnet schools as tools for denying opportunity to the Black and Brown families who live within them. And it definitely doesn’t stop White communities seeking to secede from integrated districts from doing so.

It’s long past time to break the ties between educational opportunity, property taxes and housing policy. This means moving away from a model of public education built upon districts and school boundaries (which integration merely overlays) to one in which states finance high-quality opportunities from which all children and families of all backgrounds can choose.

Finally, what integration advocates fail to admit is that their approach is patronizing to the very Black and Brown families for which they proclaim concern. This is because throughout American history, integration (along with its kissing cousin, assimilation, about which American Indians know all too well) has always been based on the racialist idea that Whiteness is superior, that White people are better, and that if it isn’t close to White or attended by White, then it is inferior, and by implication, should be destroyed.

Anyone who has gone to a Historically Black College and University, or been to a rural White school knows this isn’t true. Even worse, it is unconscionable and immoral for anyone to believe it or embrace it or perpetuate it. But the fiction remains as pernicious and destructive now as it was during the heyday of integration in the 1960s and 1970s when schools in Black communities were shut down instead of being provided with the resources they needed to serve children properly. If allowed to re-emerge, that thinking will damage the new efforts Black and Latino people are doing now to help their children succeed on their own terms.

For Black and Latino families who just want and deserve high-quality schools in the communities in which they live that also affirm their cultures, where their kids also go to schools with kids who look like them, where they know that they can succeed (even when they are told otherwise), integration remains what Charles Ogletree once called a false promise. Based on the data, their feelings are justified. They are also tired of having their children being forced to teach White people’s children how to treat them with respect, and exhausted with negotiating with White people for the resources their children are supposed to get by law. Those feelings are also well-deserved. Integration does nothing to affirm the people it is supposed to help.

If we want to build brighter futures for all children, especially those Black, Brown, and poor, we have to get to continue to overhaul the policies and practices that keep them from getting the knowledge they deserve. Focusing on integration as the solution merely papers over the hard work that must be done.

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Education the Military Way

We need not rely on thought experiments in order to visualize a more equitable system of education in the United States. There is the school system managed by the Department…

We need not rely on thought experiments in order to visualize a more equitable system of education in the United States. There is the school system managed by the Department of Defense, a global pre-kindergarten to 12th grade education system serving over 73,000 students. It is, in effect, the nation’s 45th largest school district.

Since President Harry S. Truman ordered the desegregation of the military, the nation’s armed forces have progressed from being one of the most segregated to being one of the best-integrated areas of American society. This is not to say that there are not racists in the military, there are, of course, but the absence of systematic racism in the armed forces is exemplary for the rest of our society and has a profound effect on educational opportunities for the children of African-American military families.

There are 1.3 million active duty military personal, of whom 17 percent are Black or African-American, a slightly larger percentage than in the general population. Nineteen percent (206,227) of enlisted personnel are Black as are nine percent (21,921) of officers (2014). We can assume, then, that by and large, decisions in the military, including decisions about the schools of the Department of Defense, are most likely to be taken by White, non-Hispanics.  Very few (less than one percent) of military personnel are without a high school diploma or GED.  Ninety-two percent of enlisted personnel have a high school diploma or equivalent; six  percent have Bachelor’s degrees; 1 percent have more advanced educations. Among officers, the distribution of educational attainment is reversed: 7 percent officers have only a high school diploma or equivalent; 43 percent have Bachelor’s degrees and 41 percent have more advanced educational qualifications.

More than a third (38 percent) of military personnel are married with children, while just 6 percent are single with children. The approximate average annual income of enlisted personnel is $40,400, that of officers $81,000, which gives an average annual income for African-American military personnel of $44,300. In sum, the typical African-American member of the military is more likely to have completed secondary school, but less likely to have postsecondary degrees, has a higher individual income and if a parent is more likely to be married than a member of the general African-American population.

If we look at National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) results for the key eighth grade reading indicator, incomplete as they are for kids in special ed, we find that over-all, the Department of Defense schools outcomes are considerably better than those for public schools in general, with less than half the percentage of students at the Below Basic level (10 percent v. 25 percent) and 50 percent more at the proficient and above level (47 percent v. 32 percent). Disaggregating these results by race, we find that among White, non-Hispanic, students, the Department of Defense schools again have better, if less dramatic, outcomes:  52 percent v. 42 percent testing at proficient or above; nine percent v. 16 percent testing at below basic. However, the picture for Black students is dramatic, with less than a quarter of those that in the general population test at the below basic level (10 percent v. 42 percent), between two and three times as many at the proficient and above level (38 percent v. 15 percent). Interestingly, the Department of Defense schools results for Black students are approximately the same as those for White, non-Hispanic, students in the nation’s public schools.

The overall difference, then, between the outcomes for eighth grade reading between the Department of Defense schools and the nation’s public schools in general is the strikingly superior performance of the Department of Defense schools in regard to their Black students. To what should this be attributed?  If we look at the adult education and income data, there does not seem to be an obvious causal factor. Parental education differences are pretty much a wash: Black military adults are less likely to have quit school before receiving a diploma, but also less likely to have a Bachelor’s degree or above than other African-Americans. African-American military personnel have higher individual incomes and slightly higher family incomes than the general African-American population (perhaps because all are, by definition, employed).

However, while Black students in Department of Defense schools score at the proficient or above level 38 percent of the time, Black students ineligible for the National Lunch Program (that is, with middle class incomes) in all national public schools do so just 26 percent of the time, therefore family income explains only part of the difference. Nineteen percent of Black students, nationally, who respond to NAEP indicating that they live in home with a father, are at the proficient or above level, compared to 12 percent who give no response. (This is less of a difference than that for White, non-Hispanic, students, where the percentages are 46 percent and 32 percent.) As this probably correlates with income, again it does not seem to explain the difference between the outcomes of Department of Defense and other public schools.

This leaves us with what is usually called “school culture.”  In other words, it is probable that the Department of Defense schools partake of the general, official, anti-racist culture of the military. They give Black and White students equal educational opportunities, equal access to educational resources, and given those, race ceases to be a determining factor in educational achievement. There is a lesson there for America’s non-military traditional districts and other school operators.

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End Maryland’s Indifference to Black Children

Below are prepared remarks by your editor for a panel at a confab hosted yesterday by Faith Leaders for Excellent Schools’, a coalition of pastors in Baltimore working to transform…

Below are prepared remarks by your editor for a panel at a confab hosted yesterday by Faith Leaders for Excellent Schools’, a coalition of pastors in Baltimore working to transform public education in both Charm City and the nation. The event, which featured former U.S. Secretary of Education-turned-Education Trust President John B. King, FLES cofounder and Maryland State Board of Education Board Member Pastor Michael Phillips, and Baltimore City Schools Chief Executive Sonja Brookins Santelises, focused on helping pastors and others understand what they must do for kids in order to make the state fulfill its obligations under the Every Student Succeeds Act as well as address school finance. 

Good morning! It is great to see all of you champions for our children. You are already working to transform our communities and the world for our children and families, and serve the least of us as the Beatitudes command. I am here to help you gain perspective on the issues in education here in Maryland that need to be addressed so that all of our people get the knowledge they need to survive.

As Secretary King has noted, the current administration has little concern for our children, especially our Black children. I go further and say that this is a regime bent on committing educational genocide and, when it comes to our immigrant children, what can only be called low-grade ethnic cleansing. We are a nation in moral and political crisis.

But I always say that the problem isn’t the active bigotry and evil of the very few. This administration is the very few. The problem lies with the vast indifference of the unhuddled masses to the futures of children and communities not their own. It is the failure of all of us to remember, as Hezekiah Walker would tell, to pray for you, to pray for me, to love each other, we need you to survive.

The evil may be in Washington, But the indifference is happening here in Maryland, in our very own communities, and it has been happening long before the current Occupant of the White House took office. It is rooted both in the legacies of the bigotry that is America’s Original Sin, and, at the same time, a result of current policy decision that are harmful to our children.

I think about a farmer named John Hawkins, who is buried in Sacred Heart Church in Bowie, where I live. He was born into slavery in 1832 and spent his first three decades of live without freedom or education. By 1870, when the U.S. Census was taken that year, John had to admit that he never learned to read or write. All because systems and people made decisions to deny him the gateways to the world.

John would eventually learn to read and died in 1912 literate and as free as they allowed Black people to be back then. But imagine what his life would have been if he had free to live, free to learn, and given access to high-quality education for the time to maximize that freedom

Today in Baltimore and in Maryland, we have plenty of Johns and Janes in our schools and in our communities. They weren’t born into chattel slavery. But thanks to legacies of the past and decisions made by people today, these young people have been denied knowledge that can help them build brighter futures for themselves, their families, and their communities.

Maryland leaders lie about how well children are being educated, especially Black children often been wrongly placed into special education because they can’t read. Over the years, the state has excluded as many as 60 percent of special ed students from the nation’s chief exam of measuring how schools educate children.

This means Maryland lies to parents, to caring adults, to faith leaders just like you. Even worse, its leaders lie to children who deserve great teachers and comprehensive curricula.

Maryland leaders lie about the opportunities our children have to gain high-quality learning. Districts here provided calculus, trigonometry and other higher levels of math to 18 percent of Black high school students. Districts in Maryland provided Advanced Placement courses to just 16 percent of Black high school students.

Your editor (right), along with former U.S. Secretary of Education John King, Sonja Brookins Santelises of Baltimore City Public Schools, and Pastor Michael Phillips of Faith Leaders for Excellent Schools discuss transforming public education for the state’s Black and other minority children.

Most Black children in Maryland are ill-prepared to graduate from college or technical schools or apprenticeship programs. They have been condemned to poverty and despair.

Maryland leaders lie about the roles families and communities can play both within schools and in the decisions being made in Annapolis about what we should know about how well our schools are serving children. The state just passed a law effectively allowing many schools to continue failing our kids, and make it difficult for us to do anything about it.

Maryland leaders are keeping people like you, faith leaders, from transforming schools and systems on behalf of the children who sit in your pews — and those who are outside on our streets.

Finally, Maryland leaders lie about how they want Black children to be treated. They may talk about their concern for them. But they support harsh school discipline policies that keep them from learning — and worse, don’t address the learning issues often at the heart of bad behavior. There is no reason why thousands of Baltimore City Black children are suspended, expelled, arrested, and sent to courts year after year after year.

The solutions to this crisis in education require the hearts and hands and voices of many people. This includes faith leaders such as you. This is because you touch all of the men and women in our communities who are the messengers we need to demand high-quality education for our children, the villagers who raise all of our kids.

Your churches are home to Divine Nine fraternity and sorority meetings. Politicians come to your doors t solicit support. You are the only ones who will be in these communities long after teachers leave and superintendents move on to greener pastures. You have power that only those called by God can wield.

All of us, from faith leaders to those in and out of the pews, must be the ones who knock down the doors and are in the meetings where policy is being made. Because, as they say, if you aren’t at the table, you are the menu. And throughout history Black people aren’t the apple pies decision-makers enjoy eating, but the broccoli they throw into the trash.

We cannot be surprised that school reformers, especially some folks on our state board of education, didn’t solicit us earlier this year in the fight against eviscerating school accountability. They have never thought about including us in crafting policy. Same is true for those who defend the policies and practices that have damaged generation after generation after generation of Black children in our state. Our children and communities are the furthest from their minds.

Because we know that our concerns aren’t necessarily those of the people at the state capital, we have to stick our noses into the rooms and stick our necks out for all of our children. The children who are our own by birth. The children who we never birthed or conceived. Even the children we will never see in the pews and never know by name.

We have to ask every child we meet how they are doing in school. We have to demand teachers, principals, even superintendents, to show, not tell, how they are helping build brighter futures for all of our children. Particularly as faith leaders, you must organize, work the corridors of power, feed the children intellectually, spiritually, and physically, and advocate tirelessly.

Because as Christ commands, when we do for the least of us, for the most-vulnerable of us, we are also doing for Him. We must end the vast indifference of the unhuddled masses. Which means we must be few who galvanize the many to transform schools and systems and futures for children on behalf of He who created us.

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Bring Families into School Discipline Reform

There is a conversation about reforming school discipline that we must have — but it hasn’t happened yet. It could have happened back in October when the spotlight was focused…

There is a conversation about reforming school discipline that we must have — but it hasn’t happened yet. It could have happened back in October when the spotlight was focused on Success Academy and how it deals with the behavior of children in the care of its schools — especially after it was revealed that one of its school leaders took the absolutely unacceptable and intolerable step of compiling a list of children it wanted to push out for various degrees of misbehavior. But save for Dropout Nation‘s discourse on the issue, all we got from all sides was rancor and defensiveness when what was needed was a nuanced conversation about how schools should help all children while also ensuring cultures of high-quality learning.

geniuslogoYet we still have an opportunity to reform school discipline. I propose that this starts by focusing on how discipline is experienced by all children and their families. A family-friendly approach to school discipline will not make navigating the issue simpler. But it does place the goal of our journey where it belongs – with the interest of children.

What would a common sense, family-friendly approach to school discipline look? Before we find the answers, let’s understand the challenge. We want schools to have healthy learning environments in which children can learn, ones which reflect their interests. Developing those cultures ultimately depends on how the adults deal with the behaviors of the children they serve. This is the problem. Children sometimes behave as adults expect them to. Sometimes they don’t. But even that isn’t as clear as anyone thinks. What counts as bad behavior to one adult isn’t always so to another. Without ground rules in place, different adults will deal with those behaviors differently and arbitrarily.

To provide healthy learning environments, you need to make sure that children aren’t engaging in inappropriate behavior. After all, when schools have a healthy learning environment, one which is safe and orderly, in which children are actively engaged and can achieve their fullest potential, they learn a lot more. Parents value such schools. It is the family-friendly thing to do.

But as I have written, what constitutes misbehavior according to one adult in school isn’t treated the same by another. There are some behaviors that are clearly not okay in any school, like stabbing or bullying classmates and other forms of violent behavior. Suspensions and expulsions have always existed to address those extreme acts of misbehavior. But then there are episodes of “disruptive” behavior that may be harmful to a child’s own learning and could make it harder for teachers to teach. But should suspensions and expulsions be used to address those issues when other tools are at our disposal?

Suspending or expelling a child may create order in the classroom they leave, letting the remaining kids learn more. However, it is extremely harmful to the child being expelled or suspended. These tools can be necessary sometimes. But as data has shown, they can (and have been) overused and in ways that are discriminatory and disproportionately affect different groups of students.

Short of suspension and expulsion, there are many tools and strategies that schools use to shape their disciplinary environment. These tools can also be used well, or they can be handled poorly and in ways that are discriminatory. That is not a charter or non-charter thing. It is how this particular tricky issue plays out, again, and again.

A school’s disciplinary environment can be considered along a ten point scale. We could give a school in total chaos a one, and the most severely-disciplined environment a ten. Scoring one on this spectrum, we might find the hypothetical “Lord of the Flies Middle School” where kids are bullied, fear for their safety, and are forced to choose between disengagement and learning. On the other end of the scale would be “Alcatraz in Lockdown High”, where kids are subjected to arbitrary and draconian rules of conduct that leave no room for expression, individualism, or just being a child.

In a family-friendly system of schools, we can presume there should be no ones or twos, and no nines or 10s. But we should have rules, procedures, and accountability mechanisms that collectively ensure all our schools operate safely, orderly, and reasonably somewhere along the fours to the sevens, or the middle of the spectrum.

One family might believe their child will be best served by a seven. Another might look for a four. Under this model, schools can communicate clearly where they stand on this family so that families can know that their children will be in safe, orderly schools that also won’t take away the right to learn in the name of enforcing unreasonable or unfair disciplinary practices.

A family-friendly set of practices around student discipline would allow for the rare application of expulsion and suspension under clearly-defined circumstances and with real due process. They will also define acts of misbehavior that should be addressed through other means. For children and families, there will be due process so that they can address situations in which they feel they have been treated unfairly.

Under such an approach, parents have a justifiable expectation that their child will not be in an environment where another child could harm them, or where learning is impossible because of disengagement. They also have a right to know their child will not be denied the right to stay in the school they prefer because they wore mismatched socks, failed to tuck in their shirt once too often, spoke without raising their hand in class, or talked with friends while walking between classrooms. Paramount among these assurances, students should not be kicked out of schools because of a disability that can contribute to behavioral challenges.

A key point in a family-friendly approach is ensuring that the schools are not allowed to choose their students. Instead, it should be families who pick a school that they believe will match their own child’s needs and that handles teaching and learning the way they believe it should be handled. Rather than having all parents insist that all schools behave the same way, the idea is that parents who prefer a particular approach, have the data needed to identify and then pick a school with that approach. Other families who feel differently can pick a different school that reflects their own view of what their child needs.

This means that parents know how schools operate, that all schools operate within acceptable boundaries, parents can then pick schools they prefer, and that schools are allowed to operate differently from one another while articulating how they pursue their particular approach, but are not allowed to select or remove children.

Some places have adopted different pieces of these family-friendly practices. Others districts should do the same and even go further. District of Columbia’s Public Charter School Board, for example, promotes transparency around school discipline through online equity reports that use comparable data to show exactly how each school uses or misuses suspensions and expulsions. This holds schools accountable through a degree of public shaming, but also by informing parent’s choices. Charter oversight in the district also revisits these metrics related to discipline actions.

In Louisiana, the authorizer that oversees almost all the schools serving New Orleans has adopted common practices over expulsion. Schools still have flexibility over the remainder of their discipline policies, but the removal of children from a school must be pursued according to common standards and transparent procedures. Several cities use a common enrollment and application process, which can help ensure parents rather than schools are making decisions about where their kids go to school.

This isn’t to say that the family-friendly approach to discipline is perfect. Families have different expectations for discipline, even when data and evidence suggest there are better ways of addressing the behavior of children. But it is to suggest that we focus on what should be done to help all children succeed. We should adopt an approach that focuses on how we help all children grow and that gives parents what they need to know to help them make important choices that affect their kids’ lives.

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Beyond FERPA

Discussions over the privacy of student data have recently hit the headlines in the case of the son of Faida Geidi, thanks to a battle between Eva Moskowitz of Success…

Discussions over the privacy of student data have recently hit the headlines in the case of the son of Faida Geidi, thanks to a battle between Eva Moskowitz of Success Academy and journalist John Merrow over a piece aired on PBS NewsHour over the charter school operator’s use of out-of-school suspensions and other traditional school discipline practices. Thanks to the adults involved in this issue – from Geidi’s mother to Merrow to Moskowitz herself – the young man’s school discipline record is now public fodder. Thanks to this disclosure by Moskowitz, this public fight could eventually end up in courts.

geniuslogoAs an admitted admirer of Moskowitz, I have my own opinion about whether Moskowitz did the right and necessary thing. The esteemed editor of this outlet, on the other hand, has his own thoughts. We’ll leave it at that. Numerically, however, the fight over Geidi’s son’s discipline records is a drop of water in the ocean of private information in America. From tax forms and hospital visits, to credit cards and mobile phones, we broadcast enormous amounts of private information to the world. We expect government to protect us from having that information stolen or misused. Indeed, we want our information used wisely to make us safer and more prosperous. This is especially true for data generated in American public education, to which we entrust 50 million students and $600 billion very year.

Currently the rules governing school data are shaped by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, which was co-authored by James Buckley, the brother of the legendary founder of National Review. From there, a patchwork of state laws further govern the use of student data. As the linchpin in school data governance, FERPA gives families control over the release of children’s data, and to access and therefore potentially correct errors.

But now, as data collection and analysis has become more important than ever in improving student achievement, the reasonable and sensible safeguards over data provided under FERPA are under attack. As with so many debates over education policy, this battle over the future of school privacy mirrors the broader privacy debate in this country by featuring three types of argument: Authoritarianism, Luddite extremism, and a cautious common-sense middle ground.

The first type of data extremism is authoritarianism. Dick Cheney is the archetype of this type of overconfidence, having been proven spectacularly wrong on whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, while also authorizing domestic phone dragnets and acts of torture. Outside of government officials, Nate Silver’s book The Signal and the Noise gives numerous examples of leaders who gather and act on data with insufficient awareness of the risks. In education, this kind of authoritarianism would use student data to segregate and marginalize disadvantaged student populations.

The data Luddites arise in extremist response to the possibility of authoritarianism. These folks require individual, person-by-person approval before government allows any third-party analysis of data. In education, the poster child for data luddites is David Vitter, the U.S. Senator now running to succeed Bobby Jindal as Louisiana governor. Driven by his own searing personal experience with breakdown in data piracy – Hustler’s 2007 report that the erstwhile advocate for family values had his phone number on the client list of a prostitute – Vitter Vitter has proposed legislation that would, according to University of Michigan Professor Sue Dynarski, “effectively end the analysis of student data by outside social scientists,” including “recent prominent research documenting the benefits of smaller classes, the value of excellent teachers and the varied performance of charter schools.”

But for those who support proposals such as that from Vitter, the goals have less to do with securing privacy than with ending standards-and-accountability regimes that have helped improve education for children. If the luddites prevail, Americans can say goodbye to population health research, especially in genetics, as well as most of the “smart cities” policies that have been making progress in cities from Boston to Los Angeles.

The smart center rejects both of these extremes and gives the power of data to citizens. As Barack Obama’s White House articulated last year, big data privacy can bolster “the potential of government power to accrue unchecked” and, at the same time, contain “solutions that can enhance accountability, privacy, and the rights of citizens.”

The key to this approach is that citizens own their own data, with government holding it only as a fiduciary. In the context of criminal justice, for example, this principle would require police officers to wear working body cameras while on duty, while controlling the storage and release of the resulting data to protect citizen and officer privacy except in specific cases such as civilian deaths. The private sector would be encouraged to provide additional solutions to protect individual privacy, such as Microsoft’s work on random noise generation to protect identifiable individual data.

In education, the nonprofit Data Quality Campaign articulated this middle ground with ten Student Data Principles. [For those focused on the Moskowitz-Merrow battle, the key question with this as with other proposed rules is whether the First Amendment means that the parent effectively gave consent to share with by releasing partial data to the press.] The Obama Administration has already taken some steps on this front four years ago as part of administrative rule-making involving the ability of state education agencies to allow third-parties to have access to student data.

While the details are hard, the right direction for school data is absurdly easy. The risks of data authoritarianism are real, but so are the threats from data luddites. Collection and analysis of data is at the core of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment. We can use data to innovate in educational methods, track what works, and tailor solutions for children of all backgrounds. Data is critical to families in helping their children get the education they deserve, and necessary in aiding teachers in their work nurturing young minds. Walking away from that means consigning students to mediocrity in public education, which means a life sentence of limited outcomes for those students who do not have wealthy parents.

As Congress works to update and amend FERPA, and where appropriate to coordinate diverse state laws, they should put student learning and opportunity at the forefront of their agenda.

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How Money is Spent Matters

Who knows what Virginia State Sen. Chap Petersen was expecting when he attended a Back to School night for his four kids at a Fairfax County school? But what he…

Who knows what Virginia State Sen. Chap Petersen was expecting when he attended a Back to School night for his four kids at a Fairfax County school? But what he saw pleased him not one bit. The Democrat’s complaint brings up one of the most-fractious issues in discussions around the direction of American public education: Do schools get enough money to help kids succeed?

geniuslogoOn Facebook, Petersen expressed dismay that Fairfax County school leaders deemed it appropriate to force families to watch a five-minute video asking them to lobby state legislators for additional funding. While sympathetic to the district’s call, Petersen declared that “forcing a captive audience of parents to watch a five-minute political commercial before meeting their kid’s teacher is not the answer.” That the “video’s facts were highly selective” – including leaving out news that Fairfax County gained large increases in state funding as well as gave school leaders 60 percent pay raises – also bristled the state legislator.

But there’s a reason why Fairfax County played that video: Because it works. Twice as many upper-income Americans as lower-income Americans tell pollsters that “lack of financial support” is the biggest problem facing schools (28 percent vs. 14 percent). Because affluent families have influence in American politics, teachers’ unions and school districts use their considerable resources to win their support. As Dropout Nation noted last year, National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers spend $700 million annually to shape education discussions.

But as Petersen points out, there’s far more to the story than the claims that public education systems are underfunded. Can America’s traditional public schools use resources more-effectively? Absolutely. Can more resources help schools improve the odds for our children? The answer to question number two is more-qualified than the first. Which is why Sen. Petersen had more than a few reasons to look askance at the video he was shown that night.

The best, though, imperfect way, to understand how well America is spending money on education is look at how much other nations – most-notably highly-touted Finland and South Korea — spend on their schools.

There are numerous differences between those two systems, from class size (smaller in Finland, bigger in South Korea), to levels of school choice (more in Finland, less in South Korea), to testing (recently less in Finland after decades of central testing; continued heavy testing in South Korea), to the role of unions in education policy and practice (collaborative in Finland, adversarial in South Korea).

What they have in common, however, is that they spend less than the United States. Finland’s per-pupil spending of $10,905 in 2011 is lower than the $15,345 spent by the United States; South Korea’s $8,382 per-pupil is 83 percent lower. Based on comparisons with those two countries alone, it becomes clear that money isn’t the main problem in American public education.

But traditionalists tend to dismiss those facts – and the results achieved by both countries – by pointing to the fact that America has different prevailing conditions – from levels of poverty to the legacy of slavery and immigration – than Finland and South Korea. But that argument falls apart when you look at the performance of the nation’s public charter schools.

Earlier this year, Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) released an extensive study based on six years of data on the performance of charters in 41 urban communities. From that data, CREDO concluded that “urban charter schools in the aggregate provide significantly higher levels of annual growth in both math and reading” than traditional public schools – results that translate to “roughly 40 days of additional learning per year in math and 28 additional days of learning per year in reading.”

Two top-performing countries, South Korea and Finland, spend far less than America on their public education systems.

Two top-performing countries, South Korea and Finland, spend far less than America on their public education systems.

The study also concluded, “gains for charter school students are larger by significant amounts for Black, Hispanic, low-income, and special education students in both math and reading. … Gains for these subpopulations amount to months of additional learning per year.” Further, the study showed that the charter sector is steadily improving, with significantly larger gains at the end of the time period studied than at the beginning.

These results, by the way, come even though charters spend $1,800 per-pupil less than traditional public schools.

Traditionalists claim that charters succeed by taking the best students or pushing out the worst students. Research since 2009 has empirically rejected these claims. But the most decisive repudiation emerged recently from analysis of the charter sector in New Orleans.

Since the city of New Orleans moved to a charter system, Tulane scholar Doug Harris was able to assess the impact of a system-wide move to charter schools by comparing post-Katrina performance in New Orleans to that of nearby Baton Rouge (which also suffered terrible hurricane damage but did not switch to an all-charter model). Harris wrote of the New Orleans result that “on average student outcomes is quite positive by just about any measure. … We are not aware of any other districts that have made such large improvements in such a short time. The effects are also large compared with other completely different strategies for school improvement, such as class-size reduction and intensive preschool.”

The evidence shows that other nations provide high-quality education to their children while spending significantly less money than spent in America – and that charter schools, with little in the way of bureaucracies that typify traditional districts, deliver significantly better results than their counterparts. We even know from the New Orleans experience that charter schools can improve student achievement across an entire system, at more significant levels than expensive interventions such as class size reduction and universal preschool.

But does that mean American public education doesn’t need more money? That is a different question entirely.

In 1966, President Lyndon Johnson commissioned Professor James Coleman to conduct research as to how much school funding mattered to student achievement. To Coleman’s shock and that of many other liberals, the answer that emerged was “very little if any.”

Over the following five decades, scholars pressure-tested those assumptions in the context of rapidly rising school budgets. As Stanford’s Eric Hanushek concluded in 1989, “Two decades of research into educational production functions have produced startlingly consistent results: Variations in school expenditures are not systematically related to variations in student performance.”

How is this counter-intuitive result possible? Don’t kids in rich areas do better? Isn’t it because of all the fancy buildings they have? Well, no. Kids in rich areas have lots of advantages in life. Those advantages, not school funding, make most of the difference for those children.

Virginia State Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, gestures during debate on the budget conferees report at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Tuesday, April 17, 2012. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Parents and politicians such as Virginia State Sen. Chap Petersen are right to be skeptical about claims that American public education needs more money.

But this doesn’t mean that money can’t help. Neither Coleman nor Hanushek have ever said that money never matters. In fact, within the last decade, research shows that money spent properly can be helpful in improving achievement.

Three years ago, the American Federation of Teachers’ Albert Shanker Institute released a study by Rutgers University Professor Bruce Baker that concluded that money can help children and that they can’t be helped without it. Baker reanalyzed the same sources that Hanushek used, but dismissed some as methodologically flawed, while choosing to emphasize others.

Earlier this year, however, a team led by Northwestern University Professor Kirabo Jackson reached similar conclusions in a study that ran in Education Next. Isolating the effects of additional funding resulting from court rulings in school funding torts, Jackson and his team realized that the dollars served as an exogenous shock that could be isolated from the advantages wealthier students already had. They analyzed concluded that in this specific case, additional resources helped improve results for low-income students.

A careful review of both reports, however, reveals three important caveats. First, “can” is not the same as “will” or “must.” As Coleman and Hanushek observed, money is usually spent in ways that don’t make a significant difference for children. Fancy offices for central headquarters or gold-plated and retroactive pension increases do little for current students. As Hanushek notes, Jackson’s team based their conclusions on student achievement results from 1970 to 2010, during which time real per-student spending increased by 150 percent. While results for students have improved during that time, the improvements have been very small compared with the spending increases, and the improvements have been mostly concentrated in places that have adopted aggressive non-spending reforms.

Secondly, what can be done at scale with more money is often much less than what can be done better with existing funds. While any effort at precision will lead to a false sense of certainty, the scale of the difference is clear. For example, the CREDO report showed that urban charter students obtained the equivalent of 40 extra days of math instruction, which would add up to 480 days — or more than 2.6 school years — over the course of 12 years. By comparison, Jackson concludes that a 10 percent increase in funding would result in .44 years of extra schooling for poor children. A zero-cost investment, therefore, would deliver about six times the impact of the $60 billion additional national investment that Jackson’s team suggests.

Finally, even Baker and Jackson concede that what matters most is how money is spent. As seen in school funding torts, traditional district bureaucracies don’t immediately capture court-ordered increases in funding. New money goes first to instructional and support services, at higher levels than traditional budgets. But ultimately, bureaucracies find ways to absorb the money, a fact that my colleague Sandy Kress will discuss in tomorrow’s commentary. This provides further weight to the argument of school reformers that new money should be allocated to what works – especially via the mechanism of Parent Power and School Choice to make sure the money stays focused on kids. [Ulrich Boser of the Center for American Progress, by the way, hints to this in his studies of school spending.]

Petersen has good reason to be skeptical – and so should we. America’s schools are not underfunded. There’s nothing wrong with using new money to help all children succeed. But we can do much, much more with the dollars we have, and do it in ways that are focused on kids.

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